Transpacific Yacht Race 2011: Inside Transpac, one of the lively conversations of 2011 has centered on position-reporting delays, pro or con. The decision now made to have a six hour delay may cause other long races to consider a similar cause of action, for just the same reason.
Given new transponder technologies and the capability at last of real-time reporting at minimal cost, you might think it's a no-brainer to report real-time. However, no less a voice than Stan Honey made a case for the hefty six-hour delay - even longer than the four-hour delay of 2009 - which after long consideration is now announced as policy for 2011.
That is, transponder-based position reporting will be delayed six hours until the first monohull comes within 100 miles of the finish line at Diamond Head, at which time reporting for the entire fleet goes real-time.
Stick with us, and we'll explain.
He's quoted below, but for the record, Transpacific Yacht Club board member Stan Honey has navigated race wins worldwide, holds the current round-the-world record as navigator, and is the Rolex US Yachtsman of the Year. He also has navigated 22 transpacific races, winning 11 of them, including three course records.
He is fully versed in the Transpac conundrum, which goes like this: With the calms of the Pacific High Pressure Zone blocking the direct route from Los Angeles to Honolulu, the Transpac navigator is forced to 1) analyze present weather patterns; 2) anticipate coming changes dictated by the movement of the High; 3) make some bets as to the best way to skirt around the High, adding miles (but not too many miles) in the process.
It was argued that real-time position reporting and constant awareness of opponents' moves would make the navigator's job more tactical than strategic. And with the unsettled weather of 2011, there's not much chance that the strategic outlook will be as simple and classic as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's thirty-year average pictured here.
Giving the floor to Stan:
'Racing around a High is one of the most difficult and treacherous challenges for an offshore navigator. It's hard because, when rounding a High, you have to pick your 'lane' early, and if you get it wrong, you're toast. Navigators who succeed at the Transpac become sought after worldwide because the ocean racing community understands how important and how hard it is to get it right.
Consider Mark Rudiger, Ben Mitchell, John Jourdane, Skip Allan, all of whom navigated internationally after honing their skills at Transpac. Look at the Volvo Ocean Race. The first leg runs south through the Atlantic and requires rounding two Highs, North Atlantic and South Atlantic.
The winner of the first leg of the VOR always wins overall, the only sort-of exception being Chris Dickson, with Mark Rudiger navigating, in 1993-94. They won the first leg and were unbeatable on the final leg, until they beat themselves by losing their mast.
[Regarding reporting: The most-recent VOR provided near-instant updates to navigators, but only at six-hour intervals, with a once-per-leg stealth-mode option.]
'With real-time reporting throughout a Transpac, the fastest boat in any group of boats with nearly level ratings would always win by covering,' Honey said. 'The navigational intrigue, challenge and tradition of the Transpac would be lost. For me, the Transpac races that I'm most proud of are the ones in which I won class or first to finish in a slower boat. Think Drifter '79, Charley '83, Pyewacket '99. Transpac is among the most difficult navigational challenges in any of the premier transoceanic races.'
It is worth noting that Stan Honey is not racing this year - he is too caught up as technical director of America's Cup 34 - so he has no vested interest beyond his opinion of the well-being of Transpac 2011.
Separately considered, there is the approach to Honolulu, where a hard-working shoreside committee is waiting. The better those folks can anticipate arrivals, the easier the task and the better the outcomes. Family and friends also want to know about arrivals at Diamond Head and dockside.
Thus decision number two: The six-hour tracking delay ends when the first monohull comes within 100 miles of the finish. Reporting for all boats then switches to real time. People waiting ashore will know what they need to know, and by that point in the race, every navigator's strategic commitments will have been made.
'The Transpac has a long history as a race in which navigation matters,' Honey said. 'Using a six-hour delay for the first part of the Transpac recognizes and honors that history. Switching to real-time reports as the first monohull crosses the mark of 100 miles to the finish makes logistics easier for family members and for Honolulu committee members. It will add to the excitement of the finish. It's the right compromise.'
There is one more point to add. Transpac 2011 continues the tradition of having a communications vessel accompany the fleet and conduct daily roll call. That will be the ex-Whitbread Race winner, Alaska Eagle, which has been doing the deal since 1983 and may be singing its swan song in 2011. All yachts are required to report their 0600 positions before 0700 via email, or by SSB after 0700. Alaska Eagle will aim to report back to the fleet before 0800, giving each navigator a once-daily view of the fleet that is less than two hours old, just as in the days of yore, when the tools were a sextant, the moon and stars.
And a final-final point. The Transatlantic Race now under way, Newport, R.I. to The Lizard, employs real-time tracking, with a threat of severe penalties for turning off a transponder. On both the Right Coast and the Left Coast, one is likely to hear the phrases 'video game' and 'instant gratification' attached to real-time reporting. Sometimes in a positive sense. Sometimes in a negative sense.
The board members of the Transpacific Yacht Club weighed their choices carefully, along with input from the likes of yacht designer Alan Andrews, a good friend of Stan Honey, but a man who chooses a different point of emphasis. He points out that only a few sailors have the opportunity to sail with the top navigators.
Focusing the game on those top navigators might not well-serve the greatest number of participants, he said: 'Many people find themselves on a boat that misses a few shifts and is pretty far behind early in the race with a long way to go.
You could argue that a more moderate delay, three hours, for example, still provides an edge to a skilled navigator, but it could provide a better Transpac experience for crews in the lower part of the fleet, even if their navigators end up blindly following from three hours behind, not taking full advantage of the shifts.'
Transpacific Yacht Race website